13 January 2015

Mind the Gap: why end users are constantly frustrated with tech support

It's a simple assertion- IT is not what it was a decade ago.  Like any profession or field of expertise, it's constantly evolving and changing.  In this particular case, it's growing, and rapidly.  According to the US Census Bureau's report on computer and Internet use, the number of US households with a computer has jumped by more than ten percent in the last decade, even as the population grew by twenty million people.  Of course, those census numbers aren't including today's smartphones in the study, many of which are more powerful than the typical desktop or laptop computers of 2003 anyway.  As if that's not enough, six of the thirty job fields projected to grow the most in 2016 are explicitly IT related.

But we have a big problem.  When IT was a reasonably compact field, it was straightforward for an individual to specialize in one particular aspect, but still to be reasonably well-versed in other areas as well.  One could be a network engineer in day-to-day duties, but still be a competent server or desktop hardware repair technician in a pinch.  As the market diversifies, that kind of cross-disciplinary knowledge is becoming less and less practical.  It's not that those in tech fields are getting lazy or complacent (though that does happen), but rather that there's just so much that it's impossible to keep up with it all.

Why is this a problem?  Consider another one of the premier and expansive professional fields with many parallels to IT: medicine.  In medical practice, you have individuals with basic, across-the-board knowledge (general practitioners and registered nurses).  If you have a problem that a "generalist" can't resolve, you go to a "specialist," e.g. an orthodontist, a podiatrist, etc.  That approach entails horrors in its own right, but let's assume for a moment that the model is sane.  What about IT generalists- who are they, and what can they do?  Think about it for a moment.  I'll wait...

Okay, so there's an answer, but it's not a pretty one.  Our IT generalists these days are the folks who staff help desks and call centers.  These individuals are required to have wide-reaching, general diagnostic knowledge across the whole IT spectrum.  They're expected to be able to diagnose and correct some of the most common issues, and are also expected to know when to pass the buck on to specialists.  Without these generalists, the specialists would be in an awful mess.  But the generalists are often some of the lowest-paid positions in IT, have some of the highest turnover rates and, to make matters worse, due to those other factors have very controlled and regulated interaction with those they're assisting.  That's particularly troubling when one considers that, like those in the medical field, those in IT are often treated with disdain, rudeness, and downright disrespect by those whom they serve.

Imagine for a moment that your family doctor(s) typically had less than five years of experience and rotated out every six months due to poor pay, bad hours, and/or moving on to more lucrative 'specialist' careers.  Now imagine that those temporary doctors only consulted with you by telephone, or for in-person appointments less than fifteen minutes.  If you're alarmed, that's good- it means we're on the right track here.  That's where your tech support is right now, and if you've ever been ready to lose your cool while trying to get tech help, that's the reason why.

The only solution immediately apparent to me, though there are almost certainly others, is to make the "IT generalist" a real, bona fide, reasonably-compensated profession with degrees, training, internships, and the rest to go with it.  It seems to me that until a few institutions grasp this basic concept, "big IT" is heading towards a cliff edge in a car with no brakes.

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